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fl. c. 500 b.c.

Carthaginian Mariner

Some time around 500 b.c., the Carthaginian mariner Hanno sailed westward from his hometown in what is now Tunisia. He passed the Pillars of Hercules and continued along the African coast, perhaps as far as modern-day Senegal or even Liberia. Though the full extent of his journeys is not known, it is certain that he sailed farther south than any navigator in the Atlantic Ocean would do until the golden age of Portuguese exploration some 2,000 years later.

The only part of Hanno's life known to historians is the saga of his voyage, and virtually all the details of that chapter in his biography come from a sometimes bewildering inscription left by Hanno himself. Having completed his expedition, he dedicated a stele or pillar to the Carthaginian gods, providing 18 (in some versions 19) paragraphs regarding his exploits.

Most notable of the Phoenician trading colonies along the Mediterranean, Carthage was a great seafaring power. Apparently the people of Carthage commissioned Hanno—the inscription refers to him as a "king," but in Carthaginian parlance this meant merely that he was a high official—to undertake his voyage for the purpose of establishing cities. Hanno's inscription records that his fleet consisted of 60 Phoenician ships, and that he brought with him 30,000 men and women, but 5,000 is a far more likely (and certainly still impressive) number.

Simply reaching the Pillars of Hercules, or the Straits of Gibraltar, was a feat in itself. Not only did this already place Hanno's ships some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) west of Carthage, but the Pillars served as the gateway to the forbidding, unexplored Atlantic. Having passed through them, Hanno's party sailed southward along the coast of modern-day Morocco, where they founded the city of Thymiaterium, or present-day Mehdia.

At Cape Cantin, they built an altar to the gods, and then—according to the inscription, at least—sailed eastward. The latter detail has led to some questions regarding Hanno's account, since it is not possible to sail eastward at that point on the African coast without running into land. Probably they navigated up the river Oum er Rbia and entered a lake, where according to Hanno they found "elephants and other wild animals."

The voyagers established a number of cities, leaving settlers to maintain them as they continued southward on their way to a river Hanno called Lixos. The exact identity of this river is a matter of dispute; in any case, it was at this point in the narrative that Hanno made his first mention of human life, indicating that the journeyers befriended the nomads of the area. (Apparently, to judge from a later part of his narrative, some of the "Lixites" sailed as guides with the Carthaginians.) Further on, however, in what may have been the Anti-Atlas Mountains, the journeyers encountered "hostile Ethiopians," the latter a general term for all sub-Saharan Africans.

After sailing "past desert land," Hanno's party reached a small island where they founded a colony named Cerne, perhaps Herne Island off the coast of the Western Sahara. At this point Hanno noted that they had traveled as far beyond the Pillars as the latter were distant from Carthage. Soon they encountered more hostile inhabitants "who sought to stop us from landing by hurling stones at us," and afterward they passed a river—probably the Senegal—that was "infested with crocodiles and hippopotami."

They sailed for 12 days beyond Cerne, during which time the party observed a coastline "peopled all the way with Ethiopians.... [whose] tongue was unintelligible to us and to the Lixites in our company." On the twelfth day, they "came in sight of great, wooded mountains, with varied and fragrant trees"—a place variously identified as Cape Verde, or perhaps what is now Liberia. Soon they were in the Gulf of Guinea, where at night they saw numerous fires along the shore. At a place Hanno called the Western Horn, which is perhaps Cape Three Points in modern Ghana, they "heard the sound of pipes and cymbals and the rumble of drums and mighty cries. We were seized with fear, and our interpreters told us to leave the island."

Still further on, Hanno's party saw a volcano he dubbed "Chariot of the Gods," which may have been Mount Cameroun. They sailed on for three days "past streams of fire" to what he called the Southern Horn, located either in Gabon or Sierra Leone. There they found what Hanno identified as gorillas, three of whom they captured, killed, skinned, and brought back with them to Carthage.

Hanno's narrative ends abruptly with the words "We did not journey any farther than this because our supplies were running low." Some scholars posit that in fact the Carthaginians continued sailing, circumnavigating the entire African continent but choosing not to divulge the fact to trade competitors. More likely, however, the expedition turned around at this point and returned home. Even so, Hanno's party had sailed further south than any expedition would until Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) sent out his sailors to chart the West African coast.


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